Tag Archive: Retro review


Castle in the Air Westlake

Review by C.J. Bunce

The New York Times once called Donald E. Westlake the Neil Simon of the crime novel, and that’s a pretty accurate comparison.  But his work is so much more than that.  In the world of Hard Case Crime reprints from writers of the past, Erle Stanley Gardner was the master of hard-boiled detective tropes, full of real characters and master of the human condition, Mickey Spillane wrote about those dark shadows in the corners of cities large and small, grabbing readers and sucking them into the worldbuilding of his stories, and Max Allan Collins is the craftsman keeping all the best of the genre alive with new stories today.  Donald E. Westlake was the entire package–his work cinematic in its descriptions, laser-sharp in its details, wondrous in its scope, full of intrigue, action, adventure, and yes, brilliantly funny humor.  Each one of his adventures is a sprawling production like the best James Bond movie you ever watched (in part why his Forever and a Death made our Best of the Decade list this year).

Our look at the works of master crime writer Donald E. Westlake continues with his 26th novel published under his own name and 73rd novel in all, Castle in the Air, reprinted by Hard Case Crime for the first time in 40 years.  It’s The Bank Job meets It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and it’s flat out the best retro read we’ve reviewed this year.

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thebigsleep 2  thebigsleep 4

Review by C.J. Bunce

The first thing to know about Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel The Big Sleep is that it was published three years after James M. Cain published the serialized Double Indemnity.  If your only knowledge of The Big Sleep is the big-screen adaptation directed by Howard Hawks starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall with a screenplay written by the likes of Leigh Brackett and William Faulkner, you should go back and read the novel to see how wrong Bogart is for the lead detective Philip Marlowe.  Both the novel and significantly modified movie version are convoluted tales of murder and mayhem, but the novel is better than the film in many ways.  Its value is in its shocking subject matter for the 1930s and being an early entrant helping to establish hardboiled crime novels as a genre.  Readers were first put inside the brain of Marlowe in this story, which reads like an effort to adapt Cain.  Chandler also was a reader of Cain’s work and along with Billy Wilder, Chandler would adapt Cain’s Double Indemnity for the screen.  Still in print, The Big Sleep is available in trade paperback here at Amazon.

Eight decades after its first publication, how does Chandler’s novel hold up?

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Review by C.J. Bunce

If you can’t imagine the greatest noir crime story you ever read was about a firm of private investigators researching a claim of insurance fraud, you’d better get ready.  The fifth–and what appears to be final–retro re-issue of a classic work of crime fiction by Erle Stanley Gardner (who was, at his death, the best-selling American writer of all time) is now available from Hard Case Crime.  One of the novels Gardner penned under his pseudonym A.A. Fair, the author mastermind known for dozens of Perry Mason novels (60 in total) and Cool & Lam novels (30 total) penned Shills Can’t Cash Chips sixty years ago, and it’s as exciting, current, funny, and full of intrigue as any modern bestseller.  Gardner’s Bertha Cool and Donald Lam are back at it again.  Although Hard Case Crime notes this is the last of their series of Gardner books (with this review I’ve reviewed all but one, including Turn on the Heat, The Count of 9, and the first ever publication of Gardner’s “lost,” Cool & Lam novel, The Knife Slipped)–which is a sad thing–that just means it’s time to begin tracking down the rest.   

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Review by C.J. Bunce

It’s always exciting to work your way through a Philip K. Dick novel for the first time.  The singular futurist who created the worlds of Blade Runner, The Man in the High Castle, Minority Report, and Total Recall probably created his most spectacular characters, ideas, and fantastical places in the pages of his five volumes of collected short stories.  His 38 novels are an up and down journey through a man who allowed his personal crises to seep in, and often obstruct his imagination.  Most of these were science fiction novels, but his novels outside that genre are another matter.  One of these, written around the year 1956 about a disc jockey in the changing streets of 1950s San Francisco, is The Broken Bubble, one of the closest and earliest read-alikes you’ll find from this author to the energy and twists of a Quentin Tarantino movie, in a compelling read that world pair nicely with a popular, more modern dramatic read like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Is there a better way you can think of for New Year’s Eve than spend it with Nick and Nora Charles and their spunky dog Asta?  If you haven’t met them yet, read on, or just check out the TCM marathon tomorrow featuring Dashiell Hammett’s iconic trio as played by William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Skippy.  Find the amiable, put-upon, imbibing hilarity and forced sleuthing–and much more–with 1934’s “Pre-Code” movie The Thin Man, followed by After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), and Song of the Thin Man (1947), beginning tomorrow morning at 8:15 a.m. Central on TCM tomorrow all day–appropriately on New Year’s Eve.

But where did it all begin?  In Hammett’s 1934 novel The Thin Man.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

If there is a better writer of pulp crime fiction in the long history of the genre than Erle Stanley Gardner, I don’t know who it is.  Yes, Mickey Spillane and Donald E. Westlake are in the running, too, but even if you push aside Gardner’s more than 60 novels featuring Perry Mason, you’re going to be challenged to find a better duo of detectives from the 1930s onward than Gardner’s Bertha Cool and Donald Lam.  Gardner wrote 29 novels published in his lifetime featuring the larger than life Bertha of the B. Cool Detective Agency and loyal and well-trod upon employee Lam, the narrator of the tales who lost his license to practice law and uses his smarts to keep money coming in to the agency.  Where the Hard Case Crime imprint is at its best is finding lost gems, and they have one in The Knife Slipped, written by Gardner and intended to be the duo’s second case, the publisher kicked it way back in 1939 because of Bertha’s brash, bombastic, and profane style.  Maybe that attitude just reflected the era of the day, but reading the novel now it’s clear Gardner was ahead of his time. 

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Review by C.J. Bunce

For every new movie you watch, you need to go back and see a classic, right?  If The Hunt for Red October is Star Trek in the ocean, then Outland is The Sand Pebbles in outer space.  A predecessor to science fiction staples like Total Recall, Blade Runner, and Firefly, Outland is still one of the best depictions of what life actually may be like working aboard a space vessel, once modern technology figures out how to get past that zero gravity issue.  Isolation rarely has been portrayed as believably as directed here by Peter Hyams (Timecop, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, The Star Chamber, Amazing Stories).  The 1981 Academy Award-nominated classic, Outland is now streaming on Starz, Hulu, Amazon, and Vudu.

Audiences never saw Sean Connery so average as he was playing Marshal William T. O’Niel.  In a very low-key role more frequently seen played by someone like Steve McQueen, Connery is a federal cop in space, assigned to the titanium ore mining outpost Con-Am 27.  He was selected because he was likely to phone in his job, and not ruffle feathers.  But he finds himself when he learns the outpost is a haven for drug smuggling and worse, using drugs to work crews to their deaths, all part of a cover-up.  The film’s own predecessors were any number of cop shows, and it has themes from Westerns, too, especially High Noon, another lone lawman trying to take out a local band of ruffians–and another man with marital problems.  Critics accused the film of being thin, but it’s exactly why the film works so well and holds up well still today.  In many ways the film is better, and even scarier, than Alien and Total Recall, proving you don’t need monsters to be truly alone and unprotected from life-threatening elements in space.

O’Niel’s only help is from Frances Sternhagen (Doc Hollywood, Cheers, The Closer) as Dr. Marian Lazarus, a no-nonsense crewman who is sympathetic to O’Niel as the newbie having to dodge the unfamiliar “way things are done.”  Dr. Lazarus is one of sci-fi’s least known but toughest sci-fi heroines, and her chemistry with Connery as comrade-at-arms is superb.  Another crew member is played by sci-fi and Western veteran James Sikking (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Hill Street Blues, Doogie Howser, MD), who would continue for decades to play similar roles.  And the baddie of the bunch is played by your favorite film Frankenstein, Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein, Johnny Dangerously, The X-Files, Everybody Loves Raymond).

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Goldfinger.  It’s surprising that a novel, a word, a song, and a character James Bond is so well known for didn’t arrive until Ian Fleming’s seventh novel in the series.  Goldfinger is a novel to revisit, one of the better of Fleming’s efforts, defining so much about what we know as James Bond today.  That prolonged car chase.  The requisite run-through of the spy agency’s cutting-edge techno-gadgets.  The over-the-top situations.  Already locked in 60 years ago when Goldfinger arrived on paperback racks in 1959 were the franchise’s womanizing, the liquor and dinner delicacies, Fleming’s ability to offend select groups with each subsequent novel (this time his target is Koreans and lesbians), and that same, cold-hearted, hardened spy.  Its film adaptation five years later would become one of the most popular, the third film to feature the British spy, the one that would cement a theme for Bond thanks to a song by John Barry (with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, memorably performed by Shirley Bassey), and a story most faithfully adapted in the popular comic strip of the 1960s (see our review of that version of the story here).

Although all the Bond novels can be read in any order, Goldfinger is a direct sequel to his first, Casino Royale, spinning a character out of the key baccarat game and a chance encounter at an American airport.  The first half of this novel parallels Casino Royale so much readers may think Fleming literally superimposed sections of this over his first.  In Goldfinger we view Bond in a lengthy, and fascinatingly compelling golf game, matching the import and stakes of his famous baccarat game in Casino Royale.  Who knew the anger and strategy that could go through the mind of Bond over a game of golf? And both novels begin with a similar cold, detached kill by Bond.  Chance and coincidence are focal themes.  One of Fleming’s clever strengths here, being aware of including so many coincidences that the story hinges on, is highlighting that fact unapologetically, even acknowledging it through the dialogue of Bond and his foe.

 

For those who viewed the movie version first, they should be pleasantly surprised as the stories track better than most Bond titles.  We meet this incredible villain, Auric Goldfinger, fascinated with and addicted to gold, bent on being the richest man in the world, a master architect of destruction and planning, yet also dumb enough to leave a brand on his own gold bars, and idly wasting his time duping a hotel guest on a game of canasta, which proves to be his downfall.  We also meet his henchman, Oddjob, the short, rotund Korean man with a rather sharp-brimmed bowler hat.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Philip K. Dick′s 1972 novel We Can Build You, his 22nd novel, has its strengths, the first half of the novel full of several thought-provoking ideas that each would have been better served pared down as one of Dick’s fantastic short stories.  From there it slides precipitously off the cliff into the incomprehensible–an attempt at showing a protagonist with an unstable mind inside what is by all other indications the set-up for a future America sci-fi story.  Originally written in 1962 and not published for a decade, and released first as A. Lincoln, Simulacrum, the story is centered on Louis Rosen, an entrepreneur in 1982 with questionable business acumen who co-owns a musical organ company.  We Can Build You begins to illustrate what it might be like to build a new race of artificial humans, previewing many specific elements that would become the framework of many later films, novels, and shows (like the Humans television series 45 years later).  The “simulacra” business branches off as a natural spin-off of a keyboard type organ that interacts with the mind in the future from the 1962 perspective–simulacra being a favorite early sci-fi construct in Dick’s works, also called a Replicant or android in his other works.

For a few dozen pages Dick examines what it is to be alive, for a human or a sentient robot, this time in a new way, showing two simulacra, one a nearly perfect construct of Edwin Stanton, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war during the Civil War, and later, a simulacra of President Lincoln himself.  Why?  Because of America’s fascination with the Civil War following the commemoration of its centennial in 1961 (when Dick was writing the novel).  How these highly functioning automatons react to these businessmen in the Pacific Northwest “in the future” and the ideas to use them concocted by the story’s wealthy progenitor to Elon Musk form the best sections of the book.  The biggest struggle is with the second half of the novel, when Louis, who serves as the novel’s narrator–with no prior warning–becomes fixated on his partner’s daughter, named Pris.  Louis slips rapidly into some form of schizophrenia, obsessed with the 18-year-old, and the reader becomes aware he also has the unfortunate malady of being a textbook unreliable narrator.

 

Was any part of this novel real?  Was the infatuation never mutual (like with Quentin Tarentino’s insane brother in From Dusk Till Dawn?).  Did his organ company really propose making simulacra as entertainment to re-enact the Civil War, or is the reader crazy for even believing that could have been a legitimate plot point?  Was Pris real or only a figment of his mind?  Did his brother really have an “upside down face” (Dick describes it as some kind of mutation of some future people) or Louis really believed this because of his mental disease and his false reality?  Was anyone real?  Every step of the way modern readers familiar with Dick’s more famous work Blade Runner (adapted from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) will see the inspiration for the Replicant also named Pris in that later work, not published until a decade after We Can Build You, and will question whether this Pris is a simulacra, too, or something else.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Acclaimed horror filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock′s first attempt at developing a film from the professional partnership of French writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac was for their 1952 novel She Was No More He got passed up, but he wouldn’t miss acquiring the rights to their next novel published in 1954–another murder mystery–called D’Entre Les Morts, translated as From Among the Dead, or The Living and the Dead.  H.G. Clouzot would direct She Was No More and release it as the film Diabolique, but Hitchcock would go on to be known best for his adaptation of their work–the film classic Vertigo, labeled for decades by critics as his masterpiece, and even the best movie ever made by anyone.  As readers will learn upon returning to the original Boileau and Marcejac novel, later renamed Sueurs froides or Cold Sweat (the French title of Hitchcock’s film), and finally Vertigo in light of the film’s success, screenplay writers Samuel A. Taylor and Alec Coppel significantly modified the novel for the screen.

The novel is a masterful, gritty look at five years in the life of a Frenchman in 1940 Paris, a lawyer traumatized by acrophobia and vertigo after watching a man die falling from a building, later suffering from depression and psychosis after a bundle of life experiences results in a sort of post traumatic stress disorder.  As the war comes closer, Flavières is asked by an old college friend to keep tabs on his wife, Madeleine, who he claims has developed a strange fixation on her dead great-grandmother who killed herself at Madeleine’s current age.  Flavières does as asked, but soon falls in love with Madeleine.  His love turns to obsession, which only gets worse as the story goes on, and he becomes a voyeur, and eventually controlling, possessive, and manipulative.  It would be nearly impossible for anyone to imagine actor James “Jimmy” Stewart playing the role of the novel’s protagonist Roger Flavières, so different from Stewart’s character in the film, Scottie Ferguson, a likeable San Francisco lawyer-turned cop.

Flavières follows Madeleine everywhere she goes.  As she sits and stares blankly at the gravestone of her great-grandmother, as she visits the dead woman’s apartment, as she drifts about the city in a trance state.  Is she possessed by her ancestor’s ghost?  This is the lingering question of the husband, of Flavières, and the mystery for the reader until the very end of the story.  While observing Madeleine from afar, Flavières watches her dive into the river Seine, and he rescues her, revealing himself, but not disclosing his work for her husband.  Her mysterious nature continues until he accompanies her to a church with a bell tower.  She runs up the steps, but his vertigo keeps him from following.  She screams, and falls to her death.  To this point–the midpoint of the novel–the movie is a close adaptation of the novel, except for the setting.  But the second half of the novel becomes a different journey for the protagonist than what the movie audience has seen.

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